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Golden Rings and Dragon Tails: Our Sun Cavorts on Video

[node:summary]Two filaments whipped out from the sun on January 31, 2013.

The roiling, fiery disk that is our Mother Earth’s life-giving star whipped out a gigantic filament a couple of days ago that lashed out like a dragon tail, as NASA’s scientists nicknamed it.

It was not the type of sun eruption that sends particles hurtling toward Earth, but it made for a good show. The sun, as most of us know by now, is nearing the peak of its 11-year activity cycle this year and into next, with after which it will quiet down, with fewer sunspots and eruptions.

This has been pegged as among the tamest solar-activity peaks so far, but that could change. Although astronomers expect the sun to remain pretty much itself over the next few billion years, its sunspots come and go, and are not entirely predictable. To wit: on January 23, the sun belched in a Coronal Mass Ejection, which is exactly what it sounds like: a huge splat of plasma that shot out at 375 miles per second. This set headed straight toward both Mother Earth and Mercury, astronomers said, though it did not end up sparking any severe geomagnetic storms.

Plasma filaments are much more common, and much of their material generally falls back into the sun, unable to escape its gravity. On January 31, though, the plasma did something slightly different. It formed a ring that sat on the sun’s surface before its own magnetic forces tore it apart.

Photo: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

Early on Jan. 31, 2013, SDO observed a visual phenomena that most of us do not recall ever seeing before: a ring-shaped prominence that lay flat above the Sun's surface.

“Plasma streaming along the magnetic field lines appears to go in both directions at the same time along the field lines,” NASA said in a statement describing the phenomenon. “Before long, the prominence became unstable and erupted in a large swirl with most of the materials falling back into the sun. You never know what you are going to see next.”

Watch both events unfold on our shining orb, below.